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NY's new weed law: Same old bias?

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New York State has finally taken the long overdue step of decriminalizing marijuana.

One result of the new legislation will be the expunging of criminal records. While this won’t make those previously convicted "whole," it will go a long way to correcting a wrong and will open opportunities for them.

The record is clear: Black and brown communities have suffered unjustly under a law that treated people of color in discriminatory ways — and marijuana laws have been prime examples. Couple the unequal application of the law by some members of law enforcement with the impact that systems of cash bail have on those with little financial means — inordinately Black and brown communities — and a shameful picture of racism in our criminal justice system is clear.

Righting this wrong, advocates claim, is an act of social justice. True, but what wrong has actually been addressed? Certainly, decriminalizing marijuana is an act of social justice. Advocates demanded that New York change the law and expunge criminal records — that has been met.

But the new law goes further. It will ensure that entrepreneurs will reap huge profits on the sale of marijuana and related merchandise, and that plenty in taxes will flow into New York State’s coffers. While at least some of the tax dollars will go to communities that suffered the most, it’s dishonest to suggest that this was the driving force behind changing the law.

Under the new law, recreational use of cannabis will be legal for anyone 21 and older.

For a person under 21, what will change? Are we going to cruise the streets of Smithtown looking for abusers, or, more likely, the streets of Hempstead and Brentwood?

Will search warrants no longer unfairly impact people of color when homes growing more than the maximum number of plants are targeted? Is there any reason to believe that individuals suspected of possessing more than the legal limit won’t be people of color? Should minority parents stop cautioning their children about how to behave if local law enforcement stops their car on suspicion of marijuana use? Has New York erased racial profiling with the stroke of a pen?

There is no reason to believe that the application of the new law will no longer reflect the systemic racism that has fostered a mistrust of the criminal justice system by minority communities and their advocates.

If those in Albany were really concerned about the issue of social justice and how Black and brown communities were treated under the marijuana laws, they would have changed them decades ago. Now that they realize that the state could reap billions, they’ve changed the law.

The real social justice issues dealing with marijuana within our criminal justice system shamefully remain, and these biases must be addressed. If not, the injustices and racial bias under the prior law will be wiped away — only to be replaced by identical injustices and bias under the new law. Those who see this as a new day for social justice need to look beyond the "smoke" created by those more interested in their financial equity rather than racial equality.

Richard C. Iannuzzi is a trustee at the nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and former president of NYSUT.

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